Friday, March 12, 2021

Spring SCOTUS in the Classroom Case



We are excited to announce our Spring SCOTUS in the Classroom case: Mahanoy Area School District v. B.L. This high-interest case deals with the application of the 1969 decision in Tinker v. Des Moines to off-campus student speech and social media.

Mahanoy Area School District v. B.L. presents an opportunity to teach about the limits of free speech in public schools, the “Tinker Test” or “substantial disruption standard,” how the Court applies precedents, and the potential consequences of social media use.

Due to the coronavirus pandemic, the oral arguments in this case will take place via telephone on April 28, 2021. They will be made available for the media to broadcast live. Teachers and students are encouraged to hold moot courts (or mini-moot courts) of the case the same week that the Supreme Court hears arguments, giving students the opportunity to follow discussion and analysis in the news and, of course, tune in live. The moot court teaching strategy may be conducted virtually or in-person.  

Case materials (at both middle school and high school levels) and resources are available on the SCOTUS in the Classroom program page. You can also find instructions and handouts for conducting a moot court on the program page.

Facts

B.L. was a student at Mahanoy Area High School. B.L. made the junior varsity (JV) cheerleading squad her freshman year and hoped to be named to the varsity team for her sophomore year. She was very disappointed when the teams were announced, and she was placed on the JV team again.

On Saturday from off-campus, B.L. posted two snaps on Snapchat. B.L.’s first snap was a picture of B.L. and a friend with their middle fingers raised, tongues sticking out, and the caption, “F*** school f*** softball f*** cheer f*** everything” (Note: B.L. did not use *** and wrote out the full word). Shortly after B.L. posted another text-only snap that read, “Love how me and [name of student] get told we need a year of jv before we make varsity but that doesn’t matter to anyone else? [upside down smiling emoji]” The snaps reached about 250 friends, which included other students and members of the cheerleading team. A screenshot was taken of the snap by a classmate and shared with the coaches.

The coaches determined that B.L.’s conduct violated the team’s rules of conduct and removed her from the team for the school year. The coaching staff told B.L. that she could try out again the next year. B.L. faced no further disciplinary action. The principal, athletic director, and school board supported the coaches’ decision to remove B.L. from the team.

B.L. and her parents sued Mahanoy Area School District. They alleged that B.L.’s First Amendment right to free speech was violated because the school disciplined her for off-campus speech. The District Court granted B.L. an injunction to be reinstated on the team, declaratory relief, expungement of her record, and some monetary damages. They said that even if Tinker v. Des Moines applied to off-campus speech, this situation was not sufficiently disruptive to the school to warrant the school’s response.

The school district appealed this decision to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit. This court agreed with the District Court’s ruling but for different reasons. They did not rule on whether the snaps were disruptive enough to be disciplined. Instead, they ruled that Tinker v. Des Moines does not apply to off-campus speech. The school district asked the U.S. Supreme Court to hear this case, and they agreed.

This case asks the following important question: Does Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, which holds that public school officials may regulate speech that would materially and substantially disrupt the work and discipline of the school, apply to student speech that occurs off campus?


SCOTUS in the Classroom is made possible by the support of the Supreme Court Historical Society

Image: Smartphone screen with social media app icons